THEATRE / Unearthing the town secrets: Paul Taylor on the Royal Shakespeare Company's premiere of Billy Roche's new 'Wexford' play, Amphibians at the Barbican Pit

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE plays in Billy Roche's marvellous 'Wexford Trilogy' were each combined to one location: a scruffy pool hall; a betting shop; the sacristy of the church. With Amphibians (now premiered at the Pit), we return once again to Wexford (that small coastal town is to this dramatist what Ballybeg is to Brian Friel), only this time the play takes on what is, by Roche's standards, an orgy of wanderlust, flitting between such settings as the depressing yard of a seafood factory; a cemetery that overlooks the sea; a pub room where traditional songs compete with the sound of the jukebox in the bar.

The drama also makes the voyage to Useless Island, a deserted offshore place where it was once the custom for fathers to take their 13 year old sons in an initiation into adulthood rite which involved building the boy a hut, leaving him alone for the night, and then symbolically burning the said hut before departing the next day. It's the sort of treatment that would have made a parricide rather than a man out of this reviewer.

Eagle (Ian McElhinney) is the last Wexford male to whom this ritual happened, but he is determined to pass on the old ways to his own boy, Isaac (Kevin Burke), a perky, willing disciple, proud of his dad's intransigent refusal to give up being his own boss as a fisherman for the sake of a financially more secure job in the factory. Eagle's revival of the lapsed tradition only provokes the jeers of the disaffected young men who work at the plant. They are led by Sean Murray's superbly compelling malcontent, Broaders (or acrid resentment, grinning Schadenfreude and covered-up hurt) whose views on individualism and custom differ sharply from Eagle's. He affects to discount everything but the here and now, and his hero (and the sign with which his blood brothers are branded) is not the fisherman but the crab, an emblem for him of pure selfishness, a life of unbroken take, take, take.

The difference between the two men is partly generational. Eagle once fitted into the place perfectly, but it has changed around him. Broaders never belonged and is eaten up with frustration and self-loathing. Given this conspicuous lack of success at adapting, the title, which refers to creatures that can survive in two elements, takes on an ironic tinge. As the dictionary definition printed in the programme reminds you, though, the word comes from the Greek 'amphibios' which means, literally, having a double life. Various secrets come to light in the course of the play which suggest that this form of amphibiousness holds true of some of the characters and their forebears.

Michael Attenborough's involving production juggles adroitly with the various tragicomic strands of the play, and if it is impossible to keep an entirely straight face at the first appearance of Richard Bonneville's Brian, the inheritor and new boss of the factory, who clambers in in deep-sea diving gear, having just found a chest of his grandfather's which contains a diary recounting a clandestine love affair, then this has more to do with Roche's precipitate plotting at this point than anything else. True, it's a mighty convenient fit of peak, you might think, that led the grandfather to throw the chest out to sea in the first place, and almost as helpful a lapse of vigilance that causes the grandson to leave the diary, years later, where it can be found by the runty local busybody (Lalor Roddy). Happily, both the production and the play (which is set on and around St Martin's eve, a time when Wexford fishermen, by superstitious tradition, refrain from fishing) create a charged atmosphere, as though this were a specially heightened, sateful period when people might be drawn to stumbling on secrets.

The boy playing Isaac often sounds as though he is grappling with tongue twisters (when over Irishing his lines, which is a pity because Roche's dialogue is as quirky, humorous and humane as ever. 'People don't always realise they are leading interesting lives,' says Brian, at one point, about the locals. It's Roche's gift to be able to remind one of this less patronisingly than his character.